Talk to anyone well versed in the issues of climate change or peak oil and conversation will inevitably turn to the need to source things more locally. The fact that supermarkets grow fresh salad ingredients in Africa, using valuable water and then fly them in to European markets is crazy from an ecological perspective. Most people can see the problems with air-freighted food but what if we were to take it several steps further and only eat what can be produced in our locality? Yes, that’s right – depend on the land around us as people did in past centuries, rather than a global food market. It may seem a bit extreme in the modern world but that is exactly what Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon set out to do in Canada in 2005.
They called their self-imposed challenge the 100 Mile Diet: to only eat things that were produced within a 100 mile radius of their home. Not just fruit and vegetables but everything, including farm produce (if the animals had only been fed locally-sourced food as well). They set out to do this for a whole year, writing about it online as they went. What resulted was an Internet phenomenon. People across the globe became fascinated with the tale of two people who were living locally in the midst of the globalised Western world.
According to the Worldwatch Institute, the average American meal travels somewhere between 1,500 and 2,500 miles from farm to table – a colossal use of precious resources. Because oil is cheap, local production of many ‘staple’ foods is rarely financially viable, so many of the once commonplace suppliers have dwindled out. On top of this, with the exception of a few specialized products such as honey, what is grown locally is not always available to be bought locally. So, escaping the global food market is quite a challenge.
Alisa and James admit that finding local food sources took a lot of time. Very little in a supermarket can be traced to where all the ingredients come from and many of the products contain oils, sugar or seasonings that have travelled vast distances. So they set about finding just who did produce food in the Vancouver area, starting in Spring. Unsurprisingly, one of the biggest challenges was finding carbohydrates during the ‘hungry gap’ before the new season’s harvest began – rice, pasta and bread were all unavailable leaving only potatoes. Between them they lost 15 pounds in six weeks and were forced to loosen the rules slightly to include locally milled flour from grain that at least came from Canada.
By the time summer came they had become experts at tracking down local foods. Farmers’ Markets, a university campus farm with sustainable ideals, heritage grain growers – all sources that belong to the ‘wealth of local foods to be found below the [grocery store] radar’. Far from being a bland and uninteresting diet, the local exploration was turning into a bountiful journey of discovery, constantly changing with the seasons. Rather than cooking to recipes, they had to turn to their own creativity and invent new dishes from the seasonally available ingredients they had found.
But abundant harvest can bring its own problems – like thousands of hours spent preserving harvests for the Canadian winter. By late summer blanching, freezing, canning, making preserves were taking a lot of time – they describe it as adding a part time job to their lives. "Sometime in winter, this will all pay off" became the mantra of the season.
One of the groups that joined them in trying a 100-mile diet distilled the political issues down to this statement: "Can we eat well ... without buying chemically-altered foods picked and packaged three weeks ago by exploited migrant farm workers and marketed by giant international corporations for huge profits?" Not just a trip to the local market then...
Is the 100 mile diet one that is realistic for your average person leading a busy life? No, but it was never intended to be. Alisa and James set themselves a high challenge to discover what the real issues with local food sourcing were. In the process they did much more, attracting a world-wide audience and making a bold political statement. This has led some people to label local food as the ‘new organic’ – something that seems to me to be at odds with the founder’s values which were very much attuned to sustainable organic food production. However, local food sourcing is deservedly gaining attention and the 100 mile diet certainly struck a chord with many who believe in sustainable production.
So will I be adopting a 100-mile diet in 2009? No - but I do accept that the issues it raises are highly relevant. As I have learnt to grow my own food over the past decade I feel much more connected with what I eat. I used to check food labels for unwanted ingredients, then for what was organic or fairtrade and now I look for the country of origin too. What is great about the local food movement is that it reconnects us with the sources of food production and disconnects us from the globalized food machine. Just as gardening brings an appreciation for the quality of home-grown fruit and vegetables, local food sourcing leads us to value the skills of local farmers and the wonderful diversity of produce that comes from the land around us. As Alisa wrote at the end of their 100 mile year: "I think I’ve been genetically altered by eating only local foods for so long. I don’t much want anything else... Someday soon, I will go inside a supermarket and buy something from far away. But not today."